JC Faulk is an unlikely Nelson tourist.
The anti-racism activist and community organizer lives in Baltimore, the racially tense city where several police officers were recently exonerated in the death of Freddie Gray.
Last year, by chance, Faulk met Molly Lynch, who grew up in Nelson, in a Baltimore bar. He became friends with Lynch and her partner, and decided to visit Nelson while on a trip to visit his daughter in California. He spent three weeks here in June.
He’s a city-dweller, used to an urban multi-racial world. So in Nelson there was culture shock.
His tendency at first was to consider Nelson typical of Canada, until a number of local people set him straight about that.
“This town is not typical,” he concedes in a interview with the Star. “It is extreme. That is one of the things I like about it, don’t get me wrong. I have no problem with niceness.
“People are very cool here and some people are surprised when they see me, they are not used to seeing a lot of black people here, so I get some of that. In America you get a fearful kind of thing, here you get people surprised. They don’t mean to harm me, they just wonder.”
Because Faulk’s work in Baltimore is connecting people who don’t understand each other, he visited the Ktunaxa First Nation, made contact with the Sinixt, learned about the internment of the Japanese in the war, visited the local amnesty International group, and led a discussion about Black Lives Matter at Expressions Cafe.
“I wondered what happened here to make this place so white, so when I was in Kaslo, there was a room up there with story of how the Japanese had been interned. Back in the day people were treated poorly here as well.
“The US has brought pain to people in a certain way, Canada has brought pain to people in a certain way, (other countries have), and we are all dealing with the same stuff. Here I don’t feel the racism because you people don’t know how to do racism American style because you don’t have black people here.”
Circles of Voices
A few years ago Faulk left a career in the corporate world as a diversity consultant and now runs community workshops he calls Circles of Voices.
He brings together groups of people who are unlike each other, sits them in circle, asks them to look around and choose someone very unlike them, pair up and have a conversation around a question he poses, which might be about race, sexuality, gender, or the intersectionality of any of those.
One day he asked the participants to talk about what happens when you ignore the pain of another.
“One guy was in solitary confinement for three years for drug charges in a cell that had a window four inches wide and two feet deep. That was the only light source for three years. He was in the session, comes in hat cocked to the side, pants hangin’ off his butt, tatoos everywhere, he sits with a middle aged white woman, Amy. They looked across the room and they found one another. She had not been around black people much and certainly not someone who was in solitary confinement.
“They got together, spent their three minutes each talking with each other, they got up and they had their arms around each other. And she says, ‘He is totally different than I expected him to be,’ and he said the same thing. Now, when I post something on Facebook, both are liking it and he will say, ‘Hey what’s up Amy,’ and they talk to each other.”
Faulk has some interesting facilitation techniques.
For example, “One person is the listener and one is the talker, three minutes each, and if you talk for a minute and a half and have nothing else to say, there is silence for a minute and a half. You are just looking at each other.”
Faulk says he has recently been inviting transgender people to Circles of Voices because he realized he was prejudiced against them.
“So I started inviting them to come, and they came, hesitantly at first, and I understand why, when they are living in a world that kills them.”
‘When did you first realize you were black?’
One of Faulk’s discussion questions for black people is, “When did you first realize you were black?”
Faulk says he first realized this for himself at age seven on the day Martin Luther King was killed.
“Up to that point I knew my skin colour was different, but what I didn’t know was what that meant, did not know what it meant to be in that box. I found that box means that I could die or someone could harm me for no reason other than the colour of my skin.”
He says the bullet that hit King physically hit him psychologically and put in him in a “psychological fetal position for four decades, thoroughly indoctrinated into America’s racial fear.”
In 2015, in the midst of violent protests and further police violence after the death of Gray while in police custody, Faulk emerged from his state of fear.
“When the uprising happened I saw what has going on with black people on the ground in a way I had not seen it since I was a kid. It shifted something in me, made me feel really connected to black people.
“There were tanks up there, police, national guard, helicopters, a fearful dynamic to be in. They instituted a curfew, and the first couple nights I went home. By the third night I decided I was going to stay out. Whatever fear that was in me started to diminish. After a week I did not feel the same fear.
“I went back to the way I was before that bullet hit Mr. King. I am back to being able to express myself in a more full way. And it took 48 years to get there.”
He says he’s now committed for the rest of his life to “doing what I can to address racism’s impact in my communities, in my country and the world. I could die doing this, and I would rather die at 60 than at 90 hiding behind my couch, afraid. I want to go through the rest of my life putting it out there, creating a world the way I want it to be.”
He says he’s grateful for the chance to visit Nelson and marvels at the view of the mountains, contrasting it to the view of boarded up buildings that greet children in many black families in Baltimore.
He was impressed by his visit with two Ktunaxa chiefs.
“I spent much of the day with them, it was really good, and I thought they were very careful. I understand that. Some of the talk got deep but it took a while to get there, they were very hesitant.”
The lunch they provided for him was a stretch, because Faulk had not eaten red meat for a year and a half.
“The man had killed the elk himself, so I had elk soup — two bowls, by the way. It was nice to sit in his home and talk to him and his wife. What I found about them is that their wives are just so powerful, both chiefs, both their wives.”
Faulk says he’d like to return sometime and run a Circle of Voices session in the Kootenays. But he’s not sure when that will be. He’s got a lot of work to do at home.